Greenland's Rare Earths Gold Rush

Letter from Nuuk

Sunset in Nuuk. Camilla Hylleberg / Flickr

Benedikte Vahl, a retired schoolteacher, has just one hope for Narsaq, her hometown of colorful wooden houses on a fjord in southern Greenland: that a mine will open soon in nearby Kuannersuit, bringing badly needed jobs and investment. Times are so tough that, over the past five years, more than 600 of her neighbors have left an already small municipality of 7,000. Mining might be the last hope. “I see no other solution,” Vahl says.

Kuannersuit has long been of interest to geologists. It is filled with pretty stones such as the pink tugtupite (“reindeer blood” in Greenlandic) and is home to more than 200 rare minerals, 15 of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. But these days, all eyes are on the region’s so-called rare earth elements -- raw materials essential to technology products such as cell phones, wind turbines, and hybrid cars. For years, China has held a near monopoly on the global supply, controlling an 85 percent share. (That figure is down from a high of 95 percent a year ago, thanks to U.S. and Australian efforts to start mining their own rare earths.) Kuannersuit contains as much as 10 million tons of such metals and could potentially produce 40,000 tons a year. In total, Greenland could potentially produce upward of 20 to 25 percent of the world's supply.

Global power brokers once dismissed Greenland as a white blot on the world map. No longer: Investors from Australia to Canada to China are flocking to the island in the next great contest for mineral riches. And there aren’t many people to stand in their way. Greenland is one of the least densely populated parts of the planet. Its 57,000 inhabitants -- 90 percent are indigenous Greenlandic Inuit -- live scattered across an ice-covered expanse roughly a third the size of Australia.

Although Greenlanders won the right to govern their own domestic affairs in 2009, they have yet to realize their aspirations for full independence. Denmark still provides for Greenland’s defense, and the state church

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